Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writers Constance Grady and Caroline Framke discuss “Baggage,” the third episode of the second season.
Todd VanDerWerff: One of the things I sometimes worry about when it comes to The Handmaid’s Tale is all the different layers of dystopia it has to sift through.
On the one hand, it has the very 1985 presentation of a country run by the broadcasters of the Trinity Broadcasting Network. (Even if evangelical Christians took absolute power and instituted an American theocracy, you have to imagine they wouldn’t have it run by televangelists.) On the other, it has the more modern overtones of our Trumpian moment. And on still another hand, it has an element of environmental collapse and an infertility crisis that remain the show’s main nod toward its existence as speculative fiction — but are also completely necessary to make any of the premise work. It’s a lot of ideas that should contradict each other in some ways, but the show has so far been really good at balancing them.
“Baggage” (which, I should be forthright, is probably my favorite episode of the season so far) made me think about these things because they’re constantly jostling up against each other in interesting ways. Lydia shows footage of said environmental collapse to the Handmaids in training, which is how June learns her mother (the great Cherry Jones) has been sent to the Colonies, but she’s also trying to indoctrinate the women into her way of thinking.
The guy who’s meant to help June escape instead takes her into his apartment, where she learns he and his family are now hiding their existence as still-practicing Muslims by being good Christians to the rest of the world. Surely Gilead would know he was once a Muslim, and yet the goal of the church is to win converts, isn’t it? Wouldn’t this be something Gilead would rejoice in?
I think what I’m trying to say is that you can make sense of any two of these contradictions at once, but you can’t always make sense of all three of them at once. The Handmaid’s Tale is set, on some level, in our world of abortion clinic protesters and Gwen Stefani songs, but it’s also set in not our world, which grants it certain degrees of poetic license that it uses fitfully. I think this disconnect sometimes works best when it’s silent. The more it explains itself, the more it walks the high wire.
But I ultimately loved “Baggage” because it stripped away most semblances of a story and just became a tale of flight, of June heading for the border on her own when she worries she’s in trouble, and how she almost makes it and ultimately fails. I know plenty of people will be disappointed that she was recaptured, but I found myself thinking I hadn’t learned quite this much about her since the series’ very early hours. When she chose to make a break for Canada rather than go back for Hannah (the most obviously TV way to have her captured), I knew she would never make it, but I was glad to understand her a little better from that decision.
Here’s something I do ponder more the deeper I get into the show: How much of her performative fundamentalism does June actually kinda believe now? Her prayer for the dead of the Globe made me start thinking about this last week, and “Baggage” made me consider it even more.
“Baggage” expands parts of Gilead that are glossed over slightly in the book
Constance Grady: I’m also curious about June’s religious beliefs, and I’d love for the show to give us a sense of what they looked like pre-Gilead. Is she reacting to the trauma of her life as a Handmaid by trying to find meaning in something bigger than herself? Or did she grow up Christian with her hippie mom?
We get to finally meet that hippie mom this week, and that’s another place where you can sort of see the awkwardness of how this book from 1985 got spliced together with a 2018 TV show. In the book, their mother/daughter conflict is very generational: Offred’s mother is a relic of the women’s movement of the ’60s, whereas Offred is a child of the postfeminist ’80s and finds the radicalism of the ’60s faintly embarrassing. (I’m calling June’s book counterpart Offred because we never learn her real name in the book.)
In some ways, the entire book can be read as a rebuke to the young women who came of age in the ’80s and felt that they no longer needed feminism: “You may think you’ve grown past the need for political campaigns,” the book seems to say, “but look what they’ll do the minute you let your guard down.”
But in the TV show, June is part of a generation that reclaimed feminism from the postfeminist ’80s. So her friction with her mother — the conventional daughter versus the aging radical mother — no longer stands for the fight between two generations. It’s very individual now; it’s a little bit smaller-scale and more personal; and if you think about the timeline too much, it sort of collapses in on itself.
What the show is doing much, much better than the book is bringing in the Econopeople. In Atwood’s novel, the Econowives are a part of the world-building that never made much sense. They are women who, because their husbands are poor, have to play the role of Wife, Martha, and Handmaid all at once.
But the existence of that position comes very close to breaking the central idea of the book, which is that the Handmaids are being punished under Gilead’s strict sexual purity laws: If a woman is fertile and not a criminal, under the Gileadean caste system she should just be an exceptionally good Wife, right? It definitely makes sense that Gilead would go out of its way to find reasons to punish fertile woman so that it can turn them into Handmaids, so that even women who lived like nuns (minus the sinful Catholicism) could be in danger of getting turned into Handmaids if they could have children. But then why would Gilead waste all of these valuable child-bearing women on poor men?
But when June meets a couple of Econopeople this week, we see that in the show’s Gilead, the Econowives are just Wives, but poorer: They live in shabby, cramped apartments, under surveillance, and if they are fertile, Gilead threatens them with the specter of the Handmaid’s robes if they fail to fall in line. This show has consistently excelled at opening up Atwood’s world — when doing so doesn’t mean thinking about race, which it is very bad at — and the Econopeople plot line shows it doing what it does best.
This week also saw the return of Samira Wiley’s wonderful Moira, quietly working out her PTSD in Canada. Did her return work for you, Caroline? And did you gasp when she broke out Ruby, her old Jezebel’s nickname?
Caroline: Nope, and eh?
Moira felt like by far the weakest element of this episode to me. Every time it cut to her, it felt like I was watching a few stray scenes that didn’t fit anywhere else, so they just got stuck here. And that’s a shame! I missed seeing Wiley; her alternately defiant and broken Moira was one of the first season’s most compelling characters.
In fact, one of my favorite moments of “Baggage” happens when Moira comes home from her soulless bathroom hookup, her housemate/fellow ex-Handmaid deadpans, “blessed be the Fruit Loops,” and Moira bursts out laughing like she can barely believe it. But this otherwise strong episode has such a laser focus on June and her trauma that Moira’s stagnant misery barely registers.
It’s probably just as well that June didn’t make her grand escape into Canada, because “Baggage” indicates that the show doesn’t quite know what to do with its great beyond. In expanding its world, this season of The Handmaid’s Tale deepens that world’s horrors. I’m not convinced it’s thought nearly as much about what happens once someone escapes beyond, “It probably sucks, and then it sucks a little less.”
Then again, that’s about the same ethos that drives June through those couple of months she spends cooped up in the Boston Globe offices. I loved the opening sequence of her jogging through the empty halls having memorized their every bend. One thing this show has always been very good at portraying is how people can adjust to anything, for better and for worse. It was genuinely nice to see her finding a routine that wasn’t completely soul-crushing, even as it shaped itself around shrines to the dead.
Constance: I agree, Caroline, that it’s not clear this show has developed a good sense of what post-Gilead life is like. So now we’re left with June back in Gilead’s clutches, and what I’m interested in is how Gilead will inflict consequences on her without harming her baby.
It’s an open question in two ways. First, there’s the question of logistics. Is June going back to Aunt Lydia’s Red Center? Will she be chained up in the basement like that Handmaid of Foreshadowing we saw earlier this season? Or will she go back to the Waterford house, so we can see what Serena Joy and the Commander have been up to this season?
Second, there’s the question of what we get out of June’s torment this time around. The Handmaid’s Tale is a show about women’s suffering, and for the most part, it’s managed to explore that territory without taking on the panting, leering tone of emotional pornography. (With one notable exception.) It’s used June’s suffering as a way of thinking about how our own time obsesses over controlling the bodies of women: It’s been careful and thoughtful about giving June’s suffering aesthetic meaning.
Now that June is going back to Gilead to suffer some more, how will the aesthetic meaning of her pain change? And if it doesn’t evolve, will it start to feel like we’re just watching a woman in pain for the sake of it?
How season two of Handmaid’s is using its structure to incorporate more and more of its characters
Todd: I think the season’s interest, at least so far, in expanding the show’s world and taking on the points of view of other characters suggests that it’s going to try to avoid becoming miserable for the sake of being miserable by talking about the ways Gilead has hurt other people as well — the ways that even those who fight against it are marked by it. That’s, admittedly, a pretty gigantic goal, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the show miss the mark. But the first three episodes give me a fair amount of confidence that it has some idea of how to pull this off.
And while I certainly wouldn’t say the Moira parts of the episode were my favorite scenes, they clarified for me just what this season is trying to do structurally. So far, the episodes we’ve seen have a big A-story that we spend probably 85 percent of the running time in, one that focuses on a single character in a state of desperation, and then we have a B-story that focuses on a different character entirely, takes up about 15 percent of the running time, and seems to intentionally depict the darker side of what the character in the A-story wants.
So in “Unwomen,” Emily is slowly disintegrating in the Colonies, and what she wants more than anything is to get away from there and get back to the world pre-Gilead. But June (in the B-story) really is in some remnant of the pre-Gilead world, and it’s haunted by the ghosts of itself. And even though she’s “escaped,” she’s still being held prisoner because it’s unsafe for her to be out and about.
Similarly, Moira functions as a kind of mirror of June in this episode. Yes, she’s free, able to go out to clubs and hang out with her roommates. She has exactly what June is rushing toward in the episode’s closing passages — but she hasn’t escaped Gilead either. I don’t know if the show can believably do a story about long-term PTSD, but it almost has to if it hopes to have the characters grow and change.
I find this particular episodic structure really, really effective, to be honest. Because the cast is scattered across so many different locations, it allows us to have a particular focus character in every episode, but it also allows the show to drop in on some of the supporting players from week to week, so we know what’s up with them. (And practically speaking, it gives Elisabeth Moss a little time off in every episode and then lots of time off in episodes like “Unwomen.”) Yes, if this is all we get to see of Moira (and maybe even as a first glimpse of Moira this season), it’s a disappointment, but I’m hopeful it’s presaging something meatier down the line. It’s smart storytelling.
Caroline: And that’s exactly why this second season, despite my overall wariness, has already justified its existence. Now that it’s gone beyond the book, the show can travel more freely around Gilead and reveal more of the world’s enduring ugliness and resistance by way of giving us updates on characters we care about.
But this episode makes plain that we’ll still be seeing the world through June’s eyes more often than not. Luckily, she (and Moss) is still infinitely compelling, her pent-up rage and bruised hope radiating through every scene.
At first I was annoyed that we had watched June painstakingly escape only to get dragged right back into her hell, like she had just pulled the wrong Jenga block and got buried in her own ambition. But thinking about it afterward, it became clearer that the first three episodes allowed her just enough room to get a real look at the world that waits for her outside the Waterford house, a taste of what freedom feels like, and a reality check about how hard it’s going to be for her to find Hannah, the one goal she’s had from the start.
Even if she’s about to go right back to where she came from, she’s not at all the same woman who left.
The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season two are currently available to stream on Hulu.